ABOUT THIS BOOK: On the eve of a country music festival, three people meet in the West Virginia mountains: Angela, a singer with a wounded voice; B.L., a delusional ex-con on a dangerous quest to prove himself; and Rudy, who’s chasing an old dream. If Angela sings—even speaks—she could ruin her voice for good, but she faces another threat: falling hard for Rudy, her first love, the man she abandoned to follow her career. Over the next few days the three will meet again in Winkler, the small town where the Ridgetop festival takes place. All three will be forever changed. All three will run for their lives.
| READ THE FIRST CHAPTERS |
| One |
The white line at the edge of the highway was faded; the yellow center line barely visible, and the car’s high beams seemed no better than the low. If there was moonlight, it was hiding somewhere.
The car was a ten-year-old Buick with 193,000 miles, bought with every bit of Angela’s savings plus most of what she’d earned from the summer tour. Everything she owned was stuffed in the car’s trunk and piled inside on the seats, leaving a tight space for herself behind the steering wheel. Atop a box on the passenger seat, the theater company’s glossy souvenir program stuck out of her shoulder bag. Her bio and glamour photo were printed inside: Angela Watson, Aldonza in The Man of La Mancha. After all these years, her first starring role in a professional production.
The tour had gone on without her, but she did not yet feel separated. Performing was real life, not this. In real life, she had no need for a car.
She’d driven away from Chicago that morning, a spider swinging out on her own thin thread. Her voice might be gone, temporarily, but she had to hold onto her nerve. New experiences were always scary, like driving for the first time in years. Like the prospect of holing up at Ridgetop, not talking, singing, or even laughing for at least three months. The doctor had said six months of silence would be better.
Onstage last week her voice had turned breathy, with humiliating breaks. In Sioux Falls, the tour manager had taken her to a throat specialist, who’d diagnosed vocal nodules. “Be happy,” he said. “Not cancer.” In the hall outside the doctor’s office she’d screamed silently while the manager talked on his phone, replacing her. She’d be in no danger of laughing anytime soon. Vocal nodules, growths on her vocal cords. For most singers, the end of a career.
Since dark, she’d driven south and east into the West Virginia mountains. Anger and disappointment kept her going, pushing her on toward three months of forced isolation. She sat rigidly and steered carefully, peering into the dark for the Fleming Family Motel, where she expected to sleep cheap. Tomorrow she’d reach Ridgetop Road and drive up to Alva’s cabin.
Alva’s cabin. If Alva were alive, she’d never take his help, and he’d never think to offer it. But this was no time for false pride—Alva was dead, and he’d left her the Ridgetop acreage. If she had to be silent she couldn’t work, and without work she couldn’t survive on her own. But just in time, thanks to Alva, there was a cabin with her name on it.
She’d had few encounters with Alva Henderson, her mother’s onetime boyfriend. Host of country music festivals at Ridgetop, hunter, gambler, jailbird, good old boy. He’d never cared about her and she didn’t care about him. If not this new pressing need she’d be laughing at the thought of him making his will: Lorraine’s girl, what’s her name? That’s it, Angela. Angela Watson. Might as well leave it to her.
She’d looked up to Alva Henderson—local celebrity, mandolin player, recording artist—until a bully in fourth grade asked why Alva didn’t come out and admit she was his daughter. “Because I’m not,” she said. Until then, little Angela had been satisfied with her mother’s declaration that she was a gift from heaven, her angel. Her mother was the angel.
A cabin on Ridgetop. In spite of how she felt about the man, she had only good memories of his festivals—campfires and fireflies, wooden crates of soda and beer, bursts of laughter, frantic fiddle tunes, piney breezes. As a kid, she’d run with cool grass between her toes and played chase in the dark among trucks and campers. At night she’d slept beside her mother in a child-size tent.
Sleepy now, she started watching for the motel and landmarks she remembered, first a valley and a long border of white fence along the highway, then the crossroad where the fence turned a corner. The tension in her chest eased when the Buick’s headlights fell on the white board fence. There used to be horses in the field. They might be there now but she couldn’t see beyond the fence.
At the crossroad she turned left, drove into the motel parking lot, and splashed through potholes. The lot was empty, the motel sign unlit, the windows dark. Boarded up, out of business. How hasty and reckless she’d been, not searching for updates online, though maybe this old motel never had an online presence. Change happened slowly in the mountains, but it did happen.
Eight-thirty. In another hour she’d reach the road to Ridgetop. Then she could decide whether to drive up there tonight or pull over and sleep in the car until daylight.
By holing up in Alva’s cabin, no one in Winkler would see her at her worst. She’d visit later, when she was rested, practiced in silence, and confident about her choices. Let Aunt Pete think the trouble was no big deal. Pretend she was vacationing between the summer tour and the audition in December.
The idea of going home always produced a flush of embarrassment for the way she’d left, so certain she’d soon be a big success. She could not let people at home see her looking like ten years of bad decisions, not in an old car heaped with all she owned. As soon as she was settled in the cabin, she’d find a realtor in another town and put Alva’s property up for sale. In three months she’d be well, maybe with money in the bank. Then she’d visit her aunt.
As the road climbed up from the valley, she drove into a rain so hard that the windshield wipers weren’t fast enough to clear the glass. For what seemed like hours she guided the Buick up grades, slowed around the inside of curves, pushed the gas coming out, eased off on the outside curves, and accelerated upward again. Bags and boxes slid around in the back seat. Signs warned of a steep descent: 10% Grade, Next 8 Miles, Trucks Must Pull Over and Check Brakes.
The car had no CD player and the radio produced only static. She had nothing to keep her awake but bad thoughts and the tedious turning and switching back, up one mountain and down again, pumping the brakes. She hunched over the wheel, the tune of Dona Nobis Pacem spinning in her head, cautioning herself not to hum along. Night was the worst time, when good sense gave up and worry goblins rushed in. Patience. Heal the voice. The voice, her coach called it, never your voice. Years of Olive Paul’s coaching had made Angela think of her voice as separate from herself, like a child she must feed and protect.
The voice. She was going on thirty. Her career had barely started, and now it might be over.
Her coach had argued against the tour. “The vocal ranges of those musical theater roles are going to hurt the voice. We know you can belt over an orchestra without a microphone. But night after night? Singing Aldonza? Patience, Angela! Something suitable will come along.”
The repertory company’s tour was the best thing that had come along, a risk she was prepared to take. Every day someone bent the rules and succeeded, took a risk and reached new heights. It might have worked if she hadn’t added another role. Covering for a girl with bronchial pneumonia, she’d sung eight performances of Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast, songs with a brutal vocal range.
Her only ambition now was to reach the entrance to Ridgetop Road and find a spot to park for the night. She wasn’t foolish enough to drive to the top with visibility like this.
Ridgetop was the only place she remembered Alva speaking to her. She’d been about six, and someone had pushed her forward to sing. He said, “So you’re the Angel,” and named the tune. People seemed to attach so much significance to that event, asking what she thought about singing with Alva, that she always remembered how he looked—tall, with long gray hair, faded jeans and high heeled boots. She’d sung Redwing, watching her mother’s face.
The blinking light ahead didn’t have to be connected to people. B.L. had watched it for miles, losing it every time the highway curved back into a hollow, now seeing it again. A flicker in the damp night. No traffic coming or going on this miserable mountain, just him in his truck, night and rain. All fine, except that light.
It could be a flasher at a slip in the road, or a car abandoned with blinkers on. But it might be something bad, like a roadblock. He’d been caught one time in a roadblock set up for someone else. Spotlight in his face, him fumbling for his license and fake registration, glancing at the cards as he passed them to the cop, to remind him of the name he’d used.
His old pickup couldn’t do more than forty on these grades and turns, but he liked the truck because it was common, a Ford F-150, black, 4-wheel drive. He came out of another loop and there was the light, a few hundred yards up the grade, flashing tail lights close-set and low to the ground. An old car, the left rear tire jacked up, someone stooped beside it. He accelerated to drive around, no need to get friendly. Gawked as he passed and saw a woman with a rock in her hand, striking it against the lug nuts like she was trying to get them loose. She stood up and waved.
After another twisted mile he turned back. He could ignore a wreck and pass up a hitchhiker in a snowstorm, but he couldn’t leave a stupid stranded female. When he reached her car he made a tight U-turn and parked behind it. His headlights lit the car’s open trunk and boxes on the ground. It was an old Buick with a temporary license plate from Illinois.
He cursed himself for stopping. It was a bad place to change a tire, in a curve and on a slope, but he was here now. He wouldn’t say anything about her being alone, this time of night, this isolated spot. She might have good reason, like a sick husband or baby, an old grandma to care for, something unavoidable like that, though the boxes looked suspicious, like she’d packed up and run away. If she looked worried about her situation, he’d give her credit for not being totally ignorant.
He turned off the ignition, pulled the hand brake and stepped out, leaving his truck lights on.
There was no need to volunteer a name, but in case she asked, he would say “B.L.” He’d been Bob Lewis, Bickford Lipscomb (a name he liked a lot but stuttered over), Billy Langford, maybe some others, but B.L. was best, the one he never forgot. His fingerprints were out there with his real name, Bruce Llewellyn. He didn’t use that one anymore.
The woman had one of those doughnut tires laid out on the ground.
He spoke from a distance. “You got no wrench?”
She shrugged and shook her head.
He liked the fact that she took a step back, him a stranger, no bath or shave for a week, wearing the same old army fatigues all that time. She was broad shouldered, tall as him, late teens to forty, you never knew with these women. Her hair was straight and ragged. He glanced away from where her sloppy sweatshirt touched the tops of her tits.
From the suitcases and stuff on the ground she looked to be on the move, not out here at night for any good reason. One of those liberated females, thinking she could go anywhere by herself, anytime, take care of anything.
“It’s not a real tire,” he said. “Won’t take you more than a hundred miles or so.”
She kind of shrugged. He went to his truck, lifted the hood, and unscrewed his wrench from the fender.
Rain started again, and she picked up a suitcase and wedged it into the back seat. He took the flat tire off, tightened down the spare and said nothing. One good thing, she didn’t ask his name or make a bunch of excuses. He tossed the bad tire and the jack in the trunk and set her largest box beside them.
She cleared her throat. “Thanks. I can get the rest.” Her voice cracked.
Let her do it then. She might be young but she sounded like an old hag. She pushed stringy hair off her face and stared at the stuff on the ground.
“Bad idea to be out here by yourself,” he said. “Anything could happen.” She didn’t answer, wanted him to leave, he could tell. Maybe she’d learned something. Maybe she was glad he’d come along.
He dropped the wrench into his truck bed, stepped into the cab, turned the key and cranked up the heat so he’d dry off. He shouldn’t have stopped. If a man wasted himself on too many little things, he’d never get around to doing something big.
She might have waved when he pulled around her car, saying thanks again, but he hadn’t looked. He liked the idea of her being grateful.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d really talked to a woman. There’d been the old one who processed him out of jail, but she did all the talking. At the bank where he’d drawn out his savings, he’d exchanged a few words with a female teller, just a kid and already stuck-up. Waitresses here and there. A blond dealer at the Richmond gun sale who thought she knew everything. He wanted to slap her. Instead, he bought his Ruger .22 from another dealer.
He touched the rifle case beside him on the seat. Some people looked down on the .22. He wasn’t against teaching them different, but some people was a waste of time. When he found the right kind, he’d show what he could do.
The festival might be a place to meet guys who loved the .22. Or maybe they’d just care about the music. That was all right, he cared about music too. When they had enough playing, which was always late into the night, they’d sit around the campfires and tell their stories. Lie and brag—everyone did it. He had stories, too, but he had to be careful. Make sure he was talking to the right kind.
A sign said Winkler, 5 Miles, which meant he should start looking for the road to Ridgetop, where the music festival was. He’d been there a couple of times, always the last weekend in August.
At Ridgetop he’d just say “B.L.” If they asked what B.L. stood for, he’d say Billy Langford. Maybe he should use his real name, in case someone at the festival remembered him as Bruce Llewellyn. But nobody remembered names—he didn’t remember any from the festivals except the headliner, Alva Henderson. A ways back he’d taken a poster from a gas-station window and slid it under the seat. It said Alva Henderson’s Ridgetop Festival. That was the way to get your name remembered—put it on posters. But first, get a lot of disc jockeys to say it when they played your tunes. He’d probably hear some Alva Henderson now if he could get anything on the radio.
He’d tell people the initials didn’t stand for anything. “It’s just B.L.,” he’d say. People were themselves at the Ridgetop festival; that’s what he liked about it. Even Alva Henderson had his time in jail. Only the music mattered.
The rifle lay on top of his guitar case. Last time, he’d been a beginner. This time maybe he’d sit in with old Alva himself.
Angela slid behind the steering wheel, hit the button that locked all doors, turned the key in the ignition and watched the taillights of the guy’s old truck fade into mist. She’d spoken. She must not do that again.
Getting the flat, then seeing the grubby man approach in the lights of his truck had felt like the thing that could do her in. She rotated her stiff neck and flexed her shoulders. After this, Ridgetop would feel like a sanctuary. The meadow might be dark as a vacant tenement, but peaceful and private, a place where she could sleep all day, read all night, and let the tears roll.
Deep breath. She found a towel in the bag of dirty clothes and rubbed it over her head and face, then threw it back and turned on the defroster and windshield wipers. The gas-gauge needle swung to half. Since morning she’d filled up twice, but the gauge had registered half full for a long time. Not a problem. The tire had to be fixed; she’d get gas somewhere.
The windshield wipers beat a rhythmic message: 3 months, 3 months. “Nodules are calluses on the vocal cords,” the doctor had said. “You can try silence, three to six months. A year might be better, but if rest doesn’t produce a cure, you might consider surgical procedures.”
In December, she was supposed to audition for another production of The Man of La Mancha, the Aldonza role again. She’d give herself ninety days of silence, then a month to get the voice back in shape. The wipers beat patience, patience. Whoever said patience was a virtue must never have tried it. Maybe virtue was not supposed to be easy.
There might be enough money from the sale of Alva’s property to let her live somewhere nice and rest her voice for as long as it took to recover. The tour manager liked her; he’d probably hire her for next year. But his company had played no major venues and had not paid as much as her part-time jobs as a nursing assistant. The upcoming audition was for a more profitable tour and it was by invitation, an opportunity that seldom happened to an unknown. She wanted it.
She slowed to thirty, sometimes twenty in the mists of outside curves. At least the highway was better than it used to be, with guardrail and reflectors. Ridgetop Road might be improved too, and Alva’s cabin could be better than she imagined, with a fireplace, a stack of wood and a box of long matches on the hearth. Since this was a fantasy, why not include a heavy upholstered chair and ottoman, big windows, and a view of sunrise over the mountains? She smiled at the thought. From all she’d heard, Alva was a rough old coot.
Before leaving Chicago, she’d emailed her aunt in Winkler and asked about the cabin without mentioning that she’d left the tour. “He let his cronies use it,” Aunt Pete wrote back. “I’m told it doesn’t have a lock, but I’ll get Rudy to put one on it.”
No lock, that was typical. People in Winkler bragged about leaving their doors unlocked and keys in their cars. She’d replied, “Don’t bother Rudy. When the tour is over, I’ll come home and take care of it.”
Rudy was prominent in Aunt Pete’s regular updates: Rudy in charge of the Ridgetop festival, Rudy elected to the town council. Rudy’s girlfriend, some woman in Miltonburg he never brought around, didn’t she think there was something strange about that? Rudy-Rudy-Rudy, who reminded Aunt Pete so much of Pete, her late husband. Rudy, the favorite nephew on Pete’s side of the family. Rudy, Angela’s ex-boyfriend, the one she needed to avoid.
Aunt Pete had phoned last spring when Alva died, saying people wondered if she’d be coming home for the memorial. She remembered every word of that conversation because she’d dumped her disgust for Alva onto her aunt, who didn’t deserve it. “Alva and his daughter, together at last? Test your memory, Aunt Pete. Did Alva come to mom’s funeral?”
She hadn’t been back to Winkler in years, and people thought she’d come to his memorial, maybe say something nice about him?
Rudy had not been among those asking, or her aunt would have said so.
“Alva had rotten instincts,” her aunt had said. “You don’t have to be like him.”
Angela had said she’d send flowers, certain she would not. She’d known Alva by sight and by his raspy singing voice; that was all.
This week the annual Ridgetop Festival would begin, but not on Alva’s mountain meadow. Musicians had come from everywhere to the festival on Ridgetop, playing and singing until their fingers and throats were raw or they fell down drunk. In recent years, the venue had come down the mountain to her hometown, Winkler. It couldn’t be the same.
She wouldn’t attempt Ridgetop Road tonight unless it showed signs of improvement, like an asphalt surface instead of dirt and maybe a guardrail at the top, where the road twisted and turned in horseshoe curves. Her mother had once driven down, late at night like this, with fog so thick that Angela had walked ahead to guide the car. She’d been ten or eleven. It might have been their last festival before her mother got sick.
She watched for road signs. The highway bottomed out and started uphill again. Rain stopped, but she drove slower, blinking and stretching her jaw to stay awake. Her fingers cramped on the steering wheel. The slightest surprise—a rock, a possum, or sudden headlights—could cause her to brake too fast, jerk the wheel, spin in circles and fly over the guardrail.
Mountain roads offered a narrow margin for right action. Like the story of her life.
The side road she’d been looking for appeared before she was ready. She slowed and stopped, backed up, and turned into the road, sending a shoebox of receipts and unpaid bills from the passenger seat to the floor. Two wide metal gates, dull red, blocked this road. Why gates? They were caught in the middle by a thick chain with a bulge under a flap of rubber. Two signs hung on the gates: No Trespassing and Posted.
She stepped out of the car into thick, musty dampness, lifted the flap of rubber and tugged on the lock. The Buick’s headlights beamed beyond the gate and fell onto crumbling rock pillars. Her mistake. This was Church Camp Road, not the road to Ridgetop.
Wind was drying the highway pavement. She stood for a moment, letting the breeze cleanse her sweaty face and listening to water drip from the pines. The road to Ridgetop should be the next left turn past Church Camp Road, maybe half a mile.
When she backed onto the highway, she glanced at the gas gauge. The needle swung from empty to full, stopped halfway, then fell to empty. Half-full, then empty? She could do nothing now but go on and hope that this time the gauge was not telling the truth.
A few hundred yards farther, the engine sputtered and quit.